Better Know a Rikishi: Tochinoshin Tsuyoshi
Updated: Apr 30
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When the Banzuke for Haru 2022 was released, a name that looked to be in trouble was Tochinoshin. He was down on the West side of the Maegashira #15 line, and he hadn’t had a winning record since November 2020. For all the world, it seemed the former Ozeki was headed to Juryo, possibly to never return to the top division. After a 9-6 for Haru, we are guaranteed to get at least one more Makuuchi tournament with the Big Georgian. At Maegashira #9 West, he even has a cushion before a demotion. So let’s celebrate the Big Georgian while we can still see him compete.
If you were not following sumo in the first half of 2018, you might not fully understand why Tochinoshin should be celebrated. For three tournaments, he was one of the best in the sport, going 14-1, 10-5, and 13-2. The first of those was his only Yusho, while the third was a Jun-Yusho. In those three basho, Tochinoshin won all three special prizes, collecting the Gino-Sho and Shukun-Sho twice. He capped that sequence with an Ozeki promotion, after starting from Maegashira #3. And it was a marvel that Tochinoshin was competing at all.
When Levan Gorgadze joined sumo in 2006, the only thing that made him not the prototype for a future sumo star was that he wasn’t Japanese. He was a former amateur champion, competing for Georgia at the 2005 World Championships. He grew up competing in judo and sambo, providing a strong grappling background. Most of all, he was big (190 cm/6’2”) and immensely strong. He joined Kasugano stable, where he was given the relatively straightforward shikona 栃ノ心. That translates, essentially, to “The Heart of Tochi.” Kasugano wrestlers have adopted the prefix “Tochi” for nearly a century to honor former Yokozuna Tochigayama, who was from Tochigi prefecture. It was a ring name that allowed the Georgian to get on with his sumo career.
Get on he did, making Juryo in 10 basho without a losing record. In two basho at Juryo, he was 21-9 with a yusho. He made his Makuuchi debut in May 2008, before he had even turned 21. It wasn’t all easy. He did not know Japanese, and while he was a young sumotori, his grandmother was killed in an accident that also injured his father. Despite that, all he did on the dohyo was win. From 2008 until 2013, Tochinoshin was a solid Maegashira who occasionally made the Sanyaku ranks. He couldn’t stick there, but he was a formidable rikishi in his early to mid-20s. He didn’t need to improve by much to live in Sanyaku or even threaten an Ozeki run. He needed to consolidate his sumo and perform at his best consistently.
Instead, at the Nagoya tournament in 2013, Tochinoshin suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in his right knee. In a sport where most injuries seem to be either “may return in a few days” or “will heal in time for the next basho,” this was a remarkably devastating injury. Tochinoshin left the dohyo, and possibly the Makuuchi division, hobbling and having to be held up.
Tochinoshin missed three entire basho because of this injury and subsequent surgery. He returned to the dohyo as Makushita #55 West, midway down sumo’s third division. As a former Sanyaku wrestler, Tochinisohin made short work of getting back to Makuuchi. He had back to back 7-0 records for two Makushita yusho, then went 28-2 over two JUryo yusho. The first was won in a playoff over Ichinojo, the second in a zensho yusho. When he made his return to Makuuchi in November 2014, Tochinoshin went 11-4 and earned a Fighting Spirit Prize.
Over the next three years, Tochinishin returned to his upper-Maegashira/lower-Sanyaku pattern he had pre-injury. That comeback in itself was a remarkable achievement, although he never seemed to have the ability to shoot higher. He was a very good rikishi who could occasionally be in a yusho race or win a Special Prize. Most sekitori don’t make it that far, but it still was short of joining sumo’s best. Then came the first three basho of 2018.
This is the time to talk about Tochinoshin’s brand of sumo.Tochinoshin is a Yotsu-zumo specialist, meaning he prefers to grapple. The Sumo Association also lists his preferred grip as migi-yotsu, or right-hand inside/left-hand outside. That is, in some ways, wrong. Tochinoshin doesn’t have these preferences, he overwhelmingly fights in one style against every opponent. In his sumo career, Tochinoshin has won by yorikiri, the straight-ahead frontal force-out, in 49.1% of his victories. The overall percentage for all sumo is 25.78%. And 41.95% of his losses have also come from yorikiri. He also frequently uses an uwatenage, the overarm throw, a move which comes when he doesn’t need to take an opponent to the edge. From the start of his career, a Tochinoshin match was almost guaranteed to be a grappling affair, and he would try and lock in that left-hand outside grip.
Taking such an overwhelming preference onto the dohyo can be a disadvantage for a rikishi. Opponents can plan just to disrupt your style of sumo. To win consistently, and especially to win consistently against the best, using an obvious style requires first enforcing your style and then doing it to its best. If you haven’t watched his January 2018 tournament, or haven’t in a while, you’ll be stunned. Top ranked rikishi decide to just slap him, hoping he’ll be unable to get his gri . Then Tochinoshin moves forward, methodically working inside to latch his left hand around a mawashi, and he takes over.
This approach takes immense power, and Tochinoshin always has been strong even in a sport of goliaths. His crane-lift approach to winning certain matches works even in his current banged-up state at times. (See his match against Terutsuyoshi this March.) Yet to do it requires a specific type of skill. Tochinoshin’s feet would always stay wide, and he would move forward.Then he knew exactly how to lift another human being so that they were helpless to fight back.
Tochinoshin’s brand of sumo seems simple, but is actually extremely difficult. While he is moving forward, he locks on one grip, and then works to force his opponent out. That takes extreme resilience and persistence. That befits someone with Tochinoshin’s injury history. Unfortunately, his injuries cropped back up as soon as he made the jump to Ozeki. He’s had a slow decline, featuring diminishing athleticism and an odd willingness to do a specific kind of sidestep where he keeps his feet relatively still.
The Ozeki version of Tochinoshin might not mount the dohyo anymore, but we’ll get to enjoy the Big Georgian for a little bit longer.